Facebook’s challenge: Putting action behind corporate values

October 2, 2017

During the Great Recession some banks were dubbed “too big to fail” because they were so woven into the nation’s economic fabric that their collapse would be catastrophic.

Today the question might be whether tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple are too big to have values – or more accurately to have, live by, and sacrifice for those values?

It’s not an academic question. All four companies are so much a part of our everyday lives – economically, socially and now politically – that when they get the sniffles, the nation can catch a cold.

Facebook is a good example and has been tested recently. By unwittingly selling a mere $100,000 worth of fake news ads to Russian-linked accounts during last year’s divisive presidential race, Facebook has touched off debate about everything from national and elections security to the potential downsides of social media and net neutrality.

To his credit, Mark Zuckerberg has been quick to respond, promising new transparency standards for political ads, increased security, a strong political ad buying process, and so on.

But as his critics point out, where were those measures before this happened?

It’s a tough but fair question. To be sure, Facebook had a written set of corporate values long before it started accepting fake news ads. They were and are: “Be bold, focus on impact, move fast, be open, and build social value.” But it clearly failed to “build social value” in this instance.

Would a better set of company values—or a closer adherence to them – have prevented what happened? Maybe. Maybe not. But at the very least, Facebook should now be asking itself whether being too “bold” and too “fast” in pursuit of “impact” contributed to the company violating its stated goal of building social value.

Company values have a way of coming back to bite you in unexpected moments, which is why they should be constantly examined and refined with a purpose in mind. They also need to be reinforced every single day. Values should define who you are and how you act as a company, but shouldn’t be so open-ended that you never have to make the tough decisions.

And by tough decisions, I mean money. In Facebook’s case, they should be asking, “Are we willing to invest treasure and resources to live up to our values? And are we willing to sacrifice an avenue of profit – the selling of ads to anyone at any time for any reason – and as a result be a little less open?”

My guess is Zuckerberg and those around him will make the tough call and answer yes to both questions. Already they’ve hired a thousand people to review and remove ads. I doubt that’s enough, but it’s at least a good first step. If they continue along that path, Facebook will emerge an even stronger company, having learned one of the most valuable lessons a person or a company can learn:

Values emerge from how you act every day, not from what you say — or write on a wall in your corporate offices.